The world's largest ocean, North America's highest peak, and some of its grandest rivers paint a picture of superlatives in the states of Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.

By Susan Haynes
March 04, 2004
Shelley Metcalf


Standard references to the Pacific Northwest cite Oregon and Washington. But the vast land of Alaska, separated by about 500 miles of Canada, completes the realm of this region. Superimposed over the Lower 48, Alaskan boundaries would range from Minnesota to Georgia to California, making the 49th state the nation's largest. The Inside Passage dominates Southeast Alaska, where Juneau, the waterbound capital, is located; Southcentral Alaska includes Anchorage, the state's most populous city; and the Arctic Coast and the Aleutian Islands make up the far north and southwest, respectively. In coastline miles, Alaska leads with 6,640, Washington has 171, and Oregon totals 362. Like Alaska, Washington's coast is blessed with islands, inlets, and vistas of dramatic white-shouldered mountains, along with rain forests and dense woodlands. Oregon unfolds along broad sweeps of beaches, capes, and dunes, and this state is less interrupted by deep bays and coves than its Pacific Northwest partners.


Residents of Alaska, Washington, and Oregon typically cite wilderness and scenic beauty as the top draws for living in the Pacific Northwest. That sentiment applies in little towns such as Yachats, Oregon; small, isolated communities such as Valdez, Alaska; or cities such as Bellingham, Washington. A Juneau, Alaska, local notes the boat ramp, airport, post office, and glacier are each five minutes from his house. A Seattle resident treasures having water, mountains, and artistic culture all in one place. A Pacific City, Oregon, entrepreneur loves being able to beachcomb one day and easily drive to Mount Bachelor's ski slopes the next. Washington's infamous rain nurtures lush year-round greenery. Alaskan towns such as Petersburg take pride in having less violence than cities in the Lower 48, and in their strong sense of community. All along the coast, local foods such as fish, berries, and wild mushrooms are unparalleled. And in Washington, there's the coffee.


Here, deficits often are the complement to the region's greatest appeals. A Gustavus, Alaska, resident cites the pleasures of no tall buildings, no stoplights, no ATMs, no bars, no shopping centers, no police, no cell-phone service, and no movie theaters. Would-be transplants to Juneau frequently change their minds upon realizing the state capital is reachable only by air or water. Darkness prevails over Alaska much of each day from fall until spring, and Washington's long spells of drizzle get depressing. Washington and Northern Oregon face increasing traffic congestion, while limited nearby medical care causes concern in isolated outposts. Pacific Northwesterners must remain prepared to deal with the unpredictable, such as mud slides in Oregon or storms that delay boats or bush planes in Alaska. And if you live here, you must be handy with repairs―the plumber may be out fishing.

Housing Options:

The setting has inspired pragmatic design and use of indigenous materials. Home styles are eclectic, having absorbed traditions and preferences of the region's diverse populations. Most Alaskans live in straightforward ranch, split-level, or two-story bungalow-style homes, similar to suburban styles in the Lower 48. But it's not uncommon for a sophisticated Alaskan to happily nest in the woods in a custom-built cabin with no electricity or running water and the privy out back. Renowned Seattle architects have responded to clients who want elegant simplicity. The region also opts for the sweeping grace, strong lines, and bold use of native stone and timber that characterize Northwest contemporary style. New seaside community developments are rare here, but they do emerge. In Pacific City, Oregon, Shorepine Village is expanding and offers a percentage of homes with a fractional-purchase option that mimics a timeshare, with clever improvements.

What It Costs:

Alaska still offers reasonable (by Lower 48 trends) buys. In Juneau, where nothing is far from the water, homes range from about $145,000 to $675,000. Anchorage has multiple listings from $110,000 for a one-bedroom downtown to a four-bedroom for $1.2 million in the Potter Marsh district. Or you can buy a 224-square-foot cabin on 8 acres for $32,500 in Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula, and build a family home later. In Seattle, high-maintenance houseboats cost from $300,000 for one needing work to $1.9 million. In the San Juan Islands, 2003's median price was $315,000. Olympia can command $500,000 to $1 million for waterfront estates, but as little as $180,000 for a two-bedroom with partial views. On Oregon's central coast, homes average $200,000 in Florence, and those a mile inland range from $75,000 to $425,000. Ocean-view homes are hard to find here and cost from $274,000 to more than $1 million. Farther north in Lincoln City, Oregon, the average listing runs $205,000, but oceanfront properties average $450,000 and can exceed $1 million.

Your Next-door Neighbors:

In both urban and rural communities of all three states, count on fishermen being nearby. In Alaska, you may befriend a National Park Service ranger, a photographer specializing in bald eagles, a kayaking outfitter, an internationally known jewelry designer, a wilderness guide who leads documentary crews, and an American Indian totem carver. In Washington, a 30-something Microsoft millionaire would be close by, as would an aerospace engineer. Other neighbors might include a professional forager and a third-generation oysterman. In Oregon, a new-community developer might introduce you to a dory-boat fisherman and an architect with a flair for Pacific Northwest design. There'd be a telecommuter who moved from California and the owner of a drive-through espresso kiosk.

How You'd Spend Your Free Time:

Year-round outdoor activity is the No. 1 Pacific Northwest pastime. In Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage and out into the Gulf of Alaska, you can kayak in a wonderland of bald eagles, humpback whales, and sea lions. In Anchorage, bike or walk the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Go glacier-hiking in Juneau. Ferry to Washington's San Juan Islands. Explore the Hoh Rain Forest on the state's Olympic Peninsula. In the book-lover's paradise of Seattle, you can find an author reading somewhere nearly every night. Bone up on Lewis and Clark lore at Fort Canby State Park on the Long Beach Peninsula in southwest Washington. In Newport, check out the latest exhibit at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Charter a boat to salmon fish off the coast of Pacific City and take a jet boat from Gold Beach up the mighty Rogue River. Later, go wine-tasting in Oregon's interior Willamette Valley.